Chapter 168: Murder Case
When Liu Zhongming was hastily led into the study, he caught sight of a familiar figure kneeling in front of the desk through the sheer curtains. His heart skipped a beat, and he immediately bowed outside.
“Minister Liu Zhongming requests an audience.”
The curtains were drawn back from both sides, and he glanced hastily at the Empress sitting on the side, already having a rough idea of what had happened.
In the harem, where there were only women, the most effective way to trap Chenzhou and the most intolerable act for the Emperor was likely only one thing – an illicit affair within the palace.
If he were Chenzhou’s enemy, he would also think of using this method. But what puzzled him was that Chenzhou had been in the palace for so long, and he should have been more aware of such matters than he was. How could he have fallen into this trap?
He didn’t have time to think about it now. He prostrated himself and said, “I greet Your Majesty, and I greet the Empress.”
Emperor Yu leaned wearily, pointing downward with his finger. “Yu Dexi, it’s your turn to speak.”
Yu Dexi bowed, stepped forward slowly, and said, “Shizi, there was a murder in the palace last night.”
Liu Zhongming was truly surprised. “Who was it?”
“It was a palace maid from the Yongan Palace named Wen Lan. She was found dead in the rockery south of the Duanhui Bridge,” Yu Dexi glanced meaningfully to the side, “Last night, apart from the regular patrol of the Southern Bureau soldiers, the only other person moving around in the palace was Qu Chenzhou.”
Qu Chenzhou’s hands were braced on the ground, his body bent over, without uttering a word in defense.
“Qu Chenzhou said that he went to the Star Gazing Pavillion at three-quarters past the dog hour last night because the Emperor summoned him. He even asked specifically for the time he left.”
“But the Emperor did not summon Qu Chenzhou last night, and there is no record of him leaving in the duty roster. Even the people outside the Star Gazing Pavillion, who were on guard duty, say they didn’t see Qu Chenzhou leave through the main gate.”
“Your Majesty…” Qu Chenzhou finally looked up, but was stopped by Emperor Yu’s raised hand, cutting off his words.
The Empress sneered from the side.
“What more does Qu Sitian want to say? Sneaking around the palace without the Emperor’s summons in the dead of night is a capital offense. He must have encountered Wen Lan, saw that there was no one around, and committed rape and murder, then fled to the Empress Dowager’s palace, pretending to be innocent.”
Liu Zhongming was bewildered but grasped the implication of her words.
“Are you saying that he wasn’t caught at the location where Wen Lan was murdered?”
“He himself said that he left the Star Gazing Pavillion at three-quarters past the dog hour. The people from the Empress Dowager’s side said that he had just passed Cining Palace at midnight. The forensic investigators determined that Wen Lan was murdered between the dog hour and the rat hour. Besides him, who else could it be?”
Emperor Yu furrowed his brow slightly and spoke slowly, “Zhongming, this matter involves the lives of the palace inhabitants, and I don’t want to see panic among them. I’ll leave the investigation to you.”
The Empress immediately stood up, “Your Majesty, since this matter concerns the harem, please let me handle it…”
Emperor Yu glanced at her without changing his expression and continued speaking to Liu Zhongming, “If there’s anything you need to investigate or anyone you need to interrogate, both Bo Yan and Yu Dexi won’t hinder you. Make sure to investigate thoroughly. As for Chenzhou… take him away for now.”
“This minister will not fail Your Majesty’s trust!” Liu Zhongming’s spirits lifted, and he responded loudly, about to grab Qu Chenzhou’s arm. “Let’s go, Qu Sitian.”
“Your Majesty…” Qu Chenzhou suddenly shook him off, crawling forward on his knees a few steps, his voice choked.
“Every word I said is true, I am innocent! I won’t go to Jinxiu Ying! I won’t go! If Your Majesty doesn’t believe me, I beg you to appoint Ling Shaoqing to handle this case. Otherwise… it’s better to grant me death.”
The Empress, who had intended to argue further, smiled instead. “Does Qu Sitian have any dissatisfaction with the Emperor’s personnel decisions? Where you go is not for you to decide!”
Liu Zhongming immediately echoed her words. “What the Empress says is absolutely correct! If Qu Sitian has nothing to hide, why would he be afraid to visit Jinxiu Ying?”
He went to pull Qu Chenzhou again. “You used to not listen to me, and now you dare not even listen to the Emperor’s words?”
“No…” Qu Chenzhou desperately braced himself against the ground, trembling all over. “Your Majesty, save me! I am innocent! I beg Your Majesty to appoint Ling Shaoqing!”
Emperor Yu, who had been looking at the documents with lowered eyes, finally spoke slowly when Qu Chenzhou had been forcibly dragged to the door. “Zhongming, do not go too far.”
Liu Zhongming hesitated for a moment, unwillingly letting go.
“Remember, he is not the same Qu Chenzhou as before. Zhen is merely letting him stay with you temporarily, and when necessary, I will summon him to the palace. If anything happens to him, if he gets injured or thins, I will hold you responsible!”
“But…” Liu Zhongming hesitated, feeling conflicted.
“There’s no ‘but.’ Can’t you come up with a solution other than torture?”
Emperor Yu scolded again, “Chenzhou, have you forgotten what Zhen said before? Straighten your back. Crying and whimpering, what kind of appearance is that? Just asking a few questions from the past, and you’re afraid to this extent?”
Qu Chenzhou dared not choke up anymore and could only stand up, nodding and bowing a few times before following Liu Zhongming out of the room.
The Empress seemed to want to say something more but was waved away by Emperor Yu. The room quieted down, and Emperor Yu put aside the documents, letting out a long sigh.
Yu Dexi immediately stepped forward and whispered, “Your Majesty, I went to inquire with the Empress Dowager.”
“They said that right after midnight, Qu Sitian rushed into the Cining Palace in a panic, claiming that he had been led the wrong way and lost sight of the guide. In his panic, he mistakenly entered the Empress Dowager’s quarters.”
“He didn’t plan to disturb the Empress Dowager, but she felt concerned upon hearing that it was Qu Sitian and called him in to talk for a while, probably chatting for almost half an hour.”
Emperor Yu furrowed his brow. “The Empress Dowager easily gets tired during the day. How come she chats with someone for so long at night? What did they talk about?”
“Xi Gonggong said that the Empress Dowager has been sleeping well during the day recently but often can’t sleep at night, being awake for several hours is a common occurrence. During their conversation, he was attending to her, and they discussed trivial matters of their households. Qu Sitian also mentioned that the Empress Dowager sympathizes with his difficult background and only asked about many past events.”
“I suppose he wouldn’t dare to say too much. He must not be allowed near the Empress Dowager again!”
“Yes…” Yu Dexi bowed, pondered for a moment, and grew worried. “Your Majesty, if Qu Sitian’s words are true and he was forced to flee to Cining Palace, could it be someone intentionally arranged it?”
This question hit the secret in Emperor Yu’s heart. He trembled, wanting to flip through the documents but couldn’t hold them steady, and the papers fell to the ground.
Yu Dexi knew he had asked the wrong question and hurriedly picked them up, offering a cup of tea before cautiously asking, “Your Majesty, what if the Empress Dowager summons Qu Sitian there in the future?”
Emperor Yu suddenly spat out in annoyance, and Yu Dexi quickly knelt down on the steps.
“This official knows his mistake, this official understands!”
Liu Zhongming gently flicked the reins and glanced at the person sitting in the carriage, with their back facing the window. All he could see was their silhouette. From the moment they left the palace until now, their posture hadn’t changed.
He felt somewhat despondent, unsure if Qu Chenzhou’s desperate struggle just now was an act for others to see or if he genuinely didn’t want to share the same room with him anymore.
The carriage moved swiftly and soon arrived outside the gate of Jinxiu Ying.
Within the capital, the Jinxiu Ying was divided into several departments, each with its own responsibilities. The place they stopped at was the main camp of Jinxiu Ying.
Liu Zhongming walked in front, followed by a few trusted subordinates, with Qu Chenzhou in the middle. The group silently traversed the courtyards and finally stopped in front of a red lacquered door.
Qu Chenzhou quickly scanned his surroundings.
Although he had never been to the Jinxiu Ying before, this place neither resembled a prison cell nor a regular official workplace.
“Qu Sitian,” Liu Zhongming stepped aside, making way. “Please.”
Qu Chenzhou briefly locked eyes with him before shifting his gaze to the door. “I would trouble the Shizi to arrange accommodation for me. Thank you.”
“What’s there to thank?” Liu Zhongming grinned. “It’s just a matter of adding an extra bed and quilt. Qu Sitian, you’re no stranger to living with me.”
Qu Chenzhou was momentarily stunned before realizing where he was.
But just as he turned around and swiftly jumped down the steps, someone from behind grabbed him around the waist and lifted him up without a word.
Under the gaze of his subordinates, the two doors were kicked open with a loud bang and forcefully shut again by someone using their foot.
From inside the room, there came Qu Chenzhou’s hoarse and desperate scream, “Liu Zhongming! Let go of me!”
No response came from Liu Zhongming, but it was evident that someone was struggling fiercely. There were consecutive kicks hitting the tables and chairs, the sound of heavy wood crashing onto the ground, and the chair banging against the door.
The few people outside exchanged looks, hesitating whether to speak up as a reminder. Then they heard two crisp slapping sounds, as if they had passed through the door and directly landed on their faces.
“Liu Zhongming! How dare you…”
Qu Chenzhou’s roar was cut short as someone covered his mouth, leaving him only able to make muffled sounds.
Finally, someone couldn’t bear it any longer and took a few steps forward, whispering, “Shizi… His Majesty ordered not to mistreat Qu Sitian… You…”
“Get lost! This is my territory! Who dares to blabber?” Liu Zhongming angrily shouted, “Shut your mouths. Within ten feet, no one is allowed to stay, get the h*ll out of here!”
The trusted subordinates exchanged glances and ultimately chose to keep their mouths shut, dispersing to clear the surroundings.
Outside the door, silence finally descended. Liu Zhongming still kept his gaze fixed, his hands firmly holding onto the person on the bed who refused to give up on escaping. He knelt on one knee, restraining the restless legs.
His cheeks burned from the pain of the slaps, which had been delivered without mercy. The little fox seemed to have completely lost control in an instant, something he had never anticipated.
He knew he deserved to be despised and hated, but now was not the time. He needed Qu Chenzhou to calm down, to be able to have a proper conversation with him.
“Chenzhou…” Liu Zhongming called softly, trying to slowly loosen the hand covering the mouth.
Qu Chenzhou struggled, but was pressed back onto the pillow. Suddenly, he opened his mouth and fiercely bit down on Liu Zhongming’s palm.
Liu Zhongming was in pain, almost unable to catch his breath, but he stubbornly refused to let go. Instead, he pressed his hand deeper.
It wasn’t just about the hand covering his tongue, there was something else. Qu Chenzhou’s breathing became more and more rapid, the corners of his eyes turning red, and tears suddenly streamed down his face.
In that instant, Liu Zhongming realized that all the strength resisting him had disappeared without a trace. He could finally let go of his hand.
The flesh beneath his little finger bore teeth marks, not broken, but deeply bruised and turning purple, more painful than a knife wound.
“You despicable creature.”
He cursed spitefully, surveying the room. It looked as if a typhoon had passed through, with everything in disarray from the entrance to the bed. Qu Chenzhou had kicked everything along that short distance.
“I hate you…” Qu Chenzhou laid on his back, lacking the strength to sit up, only able to cover his eyes with the back of his hand as he sobbed softly. “I hate you…”
Liu Zhongming also slumped on the bed, layers of sweat accumulating on his body.
He had witnessed the little fox losing control a few times before, and now he understood many things that had previously eluded him.
The little fox had endured too much injustice, silently bearing it for too long and enduring an unbearable loneliness. No one had ever known the hardships he had gone through.
Even after returning to his side, Liu Zhongming had believed that his love and care were enough, but now he realized it was far from sufficient.
Not to mention that in the end, he had still disappointed him.
He would forever be sorry to Qu Chenzhou, and he would never have the right to ask for forgiveness.
If Qu Chenzhou could see him as a place to vent and cry, it would be his honor.
“Chenzhou…” he gently reached out to grab that hand. “Chenzhou, you…”
Before he could finish his sentence, Qu Chenzhou suddenly jerked, about to roll off the bed. Liu Zhongming hurriedly grabbed hold of him and pulled him back.
“Are you crazy? This is Jinxiu Ying! Where do you think you’re going?”
Qu Chenzhou laid back on the bed, looking up, and without hesitation, slapped him across the face.
“Get away! Get lost! I don’t want to live anymore! Who asked you to endure the Sheyuan Nails? Who asked you to meddle in my affairs?”
Liu Zhongming held onto his hand, refusing to dodge or retreat as he took another hit. Seeing that hand preparing to strike again, he quickly seized it and asked in a daze, “What are you talking about?”
Qu Chenzhou breathed heavily, stunned by his question.
“You… haven’t… remembered everything?”
“Remembered what? Sheyuan Nails? What is that?”
Liu Zhongming watched as Qu Chenzhou’s agitation and resentment in his eyes gradually turned into a crimson hue at the corners, then faded into a fragile uncertainty. But he didn’t say anything more.
This silence was more distressing than his desperate struggles just now.
Suddenly, Liu Zhongming bent down.
Qu Chenzhou instinctively turned his head away, refusing to look at the approaching face.
The hard hilt fell into his palm.
Liu Zhongming held his hand, guiding it toward his own neck.
“Chenzhou, from the past until now, it’s all my fault.” His voice was strained.
He had said these words countless times in his dreams as a Dreamwalker, but he had always suppressed himself from saying them out loud—because each word felt like an excuse to escape.
But now, finally being able to face someone like this, to confirm that this person was still alive, he felt that this was his last chance.
If he didn’t say something now, they would remain forever divided.
Qu Chenzhou was on the verge of collapse, and he was on the verge of madness.
“Chenzhou, I know you hate me. I owe you, and I will never be able to repay you in this lifetime.”
He clenched his thin wrist tightly, but the dagger resisted, refusing to press against his neck.
“After everything is settled, I’ll go with you. Whether you want to tear me to pieces or heap all the past on me, I won’t utter a word of protest.”
“My life is in your hands, you can do whatever you want with it, but it shouldn’t be now.”
“The most important thing right now is that someone wants to kill you. Chenzhou, I…” His voice choked in his throat. “I never want to see… in front of me again.”
Qu Chenzhou stared at him blankly, tears suddenly streaming down without warning.
Liu Zhongming couldn’t help himself and leaned down, his tongue licking away the tear that rolled towards his temple. It was salty and bitter, like an unstoppable stream, making even his nose tingle with a hint of sourness.
Under his lips was the soft and delicate skin, no longer soaked in blood like in his nightmares, no longer tearing at his heart and lungs.
There was no evasion, only a subtle trembling and a low sob.
“Liu Zhongming, I hate you…”
Suddenly, he grabbed the sharp, slender jaw in front of him, and in the weak struggle in his hand, his tongue parted the thin lips, eliciting a low hum from his throat.
“Chenzhou, if you’re willing to hate me… I… I’m so happy…”
Author’s Note: Ah, this… When Zhongming regained his memories, I didn’t think it was a crucial point for him, but now I suddenly realize that it’s a deadlock, and also an opportunity for the two of them to reconcile. I’m amazing! I think I’ll treat myself to a chicken leg tonight. Starting from when Chenzhou becomes the Si Tian Guan, there really hasn’t been any more abuse. They make a great team, don’t they, working together to deal with others. 【Arms crossed】Chenzhou can lie now, and he can finally say, “I hate you.”